Perhaps the Hungarians, Poles, and Czechs can laugh about it years from now. But today, they only see cruel irony.
Exactly 12 days after the three nations formally joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) - making them the "most secure" they've ever been in their beleaguered histories - they were at war with Yugoslavia.
Which, suddenly, has them feeling quite insecure. Particularly with the conflict intensifying and Russia - the primary reason these nations sought NATO membership - rattling sabers. Deep ambivalence and outright opposition to airstrikes on Yugoslavia are sweeping public opinion in former Warsaw Pact nations, the Eastern European countries once allied with Russia against NATO.
The most jittery is Hungary, which borders Yugoslavia to the north. A significant Hungarian minority lives in northern Serbia. Hungary hosts a NATO air base in its south, within striking distance of Yugoslav missiles, which has served as a staging ground for the Bosnian peacekeeping mission. There is also speculation about NATO ground forces attacking Yugoslavia from Hungary, to divide the Yugoslav military.
With such rumors swirling, nearly one-half of Hungarians believe their country will be dragged into war, according to a recent poll. They're banking on NATO's policy of all-for-one, one-for-all. "Many people are scared," said Peter Berki, "but I believe NATO will protect us."
NATO soothing fears
Indeed, NATO has been quick to soothe its newest members and others seeking admission. Soon after the bombing began March 24, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana extended the alliance's security umbrella to cover NATO nonmembers Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovenia.
Each state now has a Western-oriented government, striving for membership in both NATO and the European Union. So they pledge support for the NATO mission, while at the same time trying to maintain a delicate balance with their neighbor, Yugoslavia.
Poland, far from the action, is the staunchest supporter so far. It has indicated it would send ground troops to Kosovo, were NATO to widen its campaign. Yet slightly more than half the population is opposed to or undecided about airstrikes.
Slovakia, which was left out of the first round of NATO enlargement because of its failure to make democratic reforms, is providing NATO fighters with crucial air space for maneuvers.
Something to prove to NATO
These remaining aspirants to the alliance see the air war over Yugoslavia as a test of their worthiness - even against public opinion at home. Especially to elites in Romania and Bulgaria, the continuing bloodshed in the Balkans adds to the urgency of NATO membership.
But as resolution to the crisis becomes murkier, pockets of Slavic nationalists, unreconstructed Communists, and Orthodox Christian fundamentalists across the region are agitating against the NATO mission.
Raised to view NATO as the enemy, many people living in former Warsaw Pact countries are watching the attack skeptically. Says a diplomat from a former Warsaw Pact country, who is based in Germany: "The main argument [for joining NATO] was a defensive alliance, but now it looks like the opposite."
In Bulgaria, some have reportedly already taken up arms to defend their Slavic Serb brethren in Yugoslavia; Slovakia has forbidden its citizens from participating. A shared Orthodox faith with Serbs and geographic proximity have made the populations anxious. Polls say 20 percent of Bulgarians and 11 percent of Romanians support airstrikes.
Romanians, who were crushed by their exclusion from the first round of NATO expansion are now questioning whether it's worth it.
In the Czech Republic, a dispute has broken out between President Vaclav Havel and Prime Minister Milos Zeman. Mr. Havel supports the mission, while Mr. Zeman described the NATO strategy as the work of "primitive troglodytes." The public is turning against the airstrikes. In a recent poll, 36 percent supported them, 48 percent were opposed.
American officials are now trying to bolster support for the mission with reassuring words for NATO's new and prospective members. US Rep. Tom Lantos (D) of Calif., after touring the Hungarian border last week, told the Monitor: "When this conflict is over and many post-mortems are written, the Hungarians [and others] will see the benefits of their membership."